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Volunteering Experiences – Courtaulds Carrickfergus

Courtauld factory, Carrickfergus

We are sharing the experiences of some of our volunteers in a series of blogs by the team behind the Memories from Carrickfergus exhibition and film. This week Joanne White tells us her story; 

The opportunity to become involved as a volunteer for this project came out of the blue and at a strange time, in the middle of a global pandemic. I received an unexpected email from National Museums NI in November 2020 seeking volunteers for ‘an exciting project’ to carry out research into Courtaulds Ltd, a UK based manufacturer of fabric and clothing, who had a site in Carrickfergus. I was vaguely aware of the factory building having worked in the local area, but I knew very little of its history or that of Courtaulds, other than it had an art gallery in London.

My first task as a volunteer was researching the history of the Courtaulds factory at Carrickfergus. This included locating local news stories, film archive footage and the products made at the factory. For the newspaper stories, I was asked to concentrate on the 1970s-1980s. It became apparent that I was reading about the steady decline of a factory and industry during this period. The confidence that the Carrickfergus factory had when it first opened in 1950 was gradually overtaken by job losses, competition from overseas markets and ongoing trading difficulties.

Once our research was completed, we decided to focus on producing a film about the factory at Carrickfergus consisting of interviews with former workers and their relatives. This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the project. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Bill, Dot, Robert and Brendan. Although the factory had been closed for forty years, I was struck by the affection they retained in working for Courtaulds. A repeated phrase during the interviews was ‘factory family’ and former employees highlighted the opportunities which they had been given such as to live locally, earn a decent salary, gain qualifications or apply for promotions.

To accompany the film, I participated with the other volunteers in writing a booklet entitled ‘We are Courtaulds’. The title was inspired by the people we had interviewed for the purposes of making the film. We decided early on that we wanted the design of the booklet to have a 1950s style to it which was inspired by the adverts for Courtaulds’ clothing from the period. These adverts were distinctive in their use of bold primary colours. I was also interested in their use of contrasting images set alongside each other such as the evening dress and car tyre (both produced from Courtaulds’ factory materials). On content, we all agreed that the booklet would concentrate on three main themes: place, people and product.

For me, listening to the stories of the people who made Courtaulds’ products, getting a glimpse into their lives at the factory and the friendships they made, was the most interesting part of the project. Whilst the remnants of the factory might not be around forever, I hope that the film, booklet and online exhibition all contribute towards telling the history of Courtaulds Ltd at Carrickfergus.

Memories of Courtaulds Carrickfergus – now online!

Courtauld factory, Carrickfergus

Since January 2021, volunteers from National Museums NI have been gathering stories and experiences of Courtaulds Ltd to understand its local impact and legacy. They have now turned these memories into an online exhibition and film which give a flavour of what the company was like to work for, and how it shaped working and social lives.

Courtaulds was the first of the man-made fibre industries to arrive in Northern Ireland, opening a factory for the production of Rayon in Carrickfergus in 1951. By 1965 over 1,300 people were employed. Its closure in 1981 was a devastating blow to the town.

The film was launched alongside a special exhibition at Carrickfergus Museum on 11th December, and both the exhibition and film are now available to view online.

Visit the virtual exhibition on Smartify.

Watch the film on YouTube


Ulster schools create Renoir-inspired online exhibition

Jennifer McConkey zine page

We are thrilled to announce that the Fashion Sense? exhibition featuring work from students at three colleges in Northern Ireland is now available to view online. Their work takes the Renoir and the New Era exhibition at Ulster Museum as a starting point and uses it to explore fashion, gender, the gaze and contemporary pressures.

Over the past year our work with schools has had to adapt to take place online, this exhibition is the culmination of our first project using this new approach, which encourages personal reflection and independent learning based on resources provided by The Courtauld’s public programmes team.

The exhibition can be viewed on The Courtauld’s website and includes a short film by Dr Karen Serres, Curator of Paintings at The Courtauld.

The Fashion Sense? sourcebook is also available to download on our website. If you are interested in finding out more or would like our support in running the project in your school or college contact

New Activity Packs Get People Drawing

Artful Line Activity Packs

As galleries across the UK look at how to operate within new social distancing guidelines, The Harris has taken a new approach to encouraging visitors to make their own drawings inspired by The Artful Line exhibition. In this guest blog, Holly Nesbitt tells us more about how and why they had to change their plans. 

The Artful Line is an exhibition that explores drawing in all its forms. We have a wide range of drawings on display, including four loans from The Courtauld Gallery and rarely seen works from our own collection.

We were very keen on involving visitors with drawing in the gallery. So we had a table with lots of drawing materials (including sketchbooks, paper, different drawing pencils and coloured pencils) and some drawing activities to do in the space, as well as ones to take home. Visitors could also send their drawings to us via email, social media or they could hand them to a member of staff and they would be put on a tv gallery in the space. This was really popular with visitors, especially families during the half-term holidays.

Just before the building closed due to Covid-19, all of the materials were removed from the space. When we reopened in July, the current guidance meant that we couldn’t have the materials back in the space. In spite of this, we still wanted to involve visitors with drawing.

To do this we created art packs that people could take home from the gallery. They include some different coloured sugar paper, different shade pencils, a rubber and an activity created by Gavin Renshaw and The Courtauld Gallery Learning Team. This was completed during lockdown and was released as a part of the online exhibition for the Artful Line. Gavin Renshaw was one of the artists commissioned to create a drawing for the exhibition, he created four drawings entitled Caliban, which he refers to in the activity.

Also in the packs is a sheet telling people where to find other resources. During the Artful Line online exhibition, we commissioned other artists to create drawing activities and resources for people to do at home. One of these was done by Kathryn Poole, another of the artists commissioned to create a drawing for the exhibition, and another resource was created by Oxheys, an independent artist collective, who created the activities that were in the gallery before Covid-19. For the online exhibition they created video versions of the activities. All of this can be find on our Artful Line exhibition page, which the sheet details. Visitors still have a chance to have their drawings featured on the tv gallery if they send their drawing to us.

Find out more:

An online tour of the exhibition, learning activities and details about how to visit The Harris in person can be found on The Artful Line webpage.


National Highlights – Ulster Museum

As part of our ongoing series to celebrate the collections of our partners and the Courtauld Gallery, this week Anna Liesching, Curator of Art at Ulster Museum, chooses works by two outstanding female artists working in male-dominated movements in the early 20th century.

Helen Saunders: Portrait
Image: Helen Saunders (1885-1963), Portrait  ©The Estate of Helen Saunders/The Samuel Courtauld Trust

As part of the Courtauld Connects project I was lucky to visit the Courtauld works on paper store to spend the morning with Dr Ketty Gottardo, Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings. The main purpose of my visit was to select work for our upcoming loan, but like any curator visiting another collection’s store, I could not miss the opportunity to see the range of work held and hear from Ketty about the collection and her work.

My main take away from the day was the sheer range within the Courtauld collection. Like many, I associate the collection with the Impressionists, so it was wonderful to see the breadth demonstrated through works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Dürer. I have returned to my photographs of the visit many times. The significance of that day has also grown, it was three weeks before lockdown (what feels like a lifetime ago) and was actually the last time I was in any kind of collection store!

I keep returning to this work by Helen Saunders, and my delight to know that Courtauld still actively collected. This was something of which I was not aware, that I see now should not have been surprising. So when asked to take part in this blog series I wanted to select a piece to highlight this contemporary collecting.

I was vaguely aware of Saunders existence, mainly that she was a member of the Vorticists and that was only through my particular research interest in the work of women artists.

Helen Saunders was born in 1885 in London. She studied at the Slade, something recognisable in her figurative work. I always think you can spot a Slade student from that time because so much attention was put on study in the life room. She then went on to the Central School of Art and Crafts. She exhibited widely in her early career and was one of only two women who signed the Vorticist manifesto, Blast 1, in 1914, along with Jessica Dismor.

I have always been drawn to the Vorticists, and the fact that they were such a brief movement. Only really flourishing between 1912 and 1915, it still had an impact on the artists involved and many since. I’m particularly captured by art movements that have reacted to wider moments of change in society, and that set out to agitate and rail against the structure of the art system. Vortisicm reflected the energy of the modernist era, working in abstraction, often taking inspiration from machinery. It could also be considered that Vortisicm foreshadowed the impending violence of the First World War in the violence of some of some of the work produced.

However this work is not from that time. It is, in fact, a portrait of Blanche Caudwell. Though it is a figurative work, it still reflects her use of shape from her Vorticist days. Following her involvement in the movement, Saunders’ style moved towards the figure and landscapes. Saunders met Blanche Caudwell in 1933 and they shared a flat from the mid-1930s until Caudwell’s death in 1950. Caudwell frequently sat for Saunders during this time.

Martin: Dispersal on Black
Dispersal: On Black (1967) Mary Martin (1907 – 1969) ©The Estate of Mary Martin/National Museums NI, Ulster Museum Collection

As I primarily look after works of art on paper, and fine art by local artists, I wanted to choose something from the Ulster Museum collection that I do not often get the opportunity to write about. I have selected this piece by Mary Martin, another woman who was a member of a male dominated group that innovated artistic practice- the British Constructivists.

Born Mary Balmford in 1907, she studied at Goldsmiths’ College and then at the Royal College of Art. She exhibited with the Artists International Association, whose membership was 40% women, from 1934, mainly as a still-life and landscape painter. It is interesting to note that because the gallery and academy system was so closed, many women artists exhibited as part of groups as this was often they only way they could get their work seen. You will often find that exhibition groups had large proportions of women members.

Mary Martin was one of the most influential Constructivist artists of her generation. The British Constructivist Group often created work that centred on the ‘act of assembling’ and saw an importance in the form and aesthetic of mathematical principals and geometric composition. Similar to the Vorticists, the British Constructivists were concerned with new principles of design and environment, but possibly in a more conceptual and reimagined way and less reactive to their current environment. Also similar in how the Vorticists were reacting to European Cubism and Futurism, the British Constructivists were creating their own vision and revival of a movement that derived elsewhere (though 30 years before) Russian Constructivism.

Martin often used natural elements as inspiration and developed from that, specifically the idea of natural elements moving away from a central force – dispersal. For example, Dispersal on Black uses half cubes arranged to combine reflections and open planes. The mirrored shapes are not clustered together in the centre, but disperse towards the edges. She often described this as a ‘super-pattern’. She used drawings to create ‘workings out’ in order to decide on the final construction for a relief piece, these drawings were often displayed alongside the works.

Mary Martin is often associated with her husband Kenneth Martin, also a member of the British Constructivists. They often worked together collaboratively, most notably on the Environment section of the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition the Whitechapel gallery in 1956.

I am also drawn to this piece knowing of Martin’s link to Belfast. The screen she was commissioned to design for Musgrave Park Hospital in 1957 placed her vision of a new era within my own built environment.

Find out more:

An example of Saunder’s Vorticist work from the Courtauld Collection is currently on show in the Artful Line virtual tour, curated by the Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library.

The collections of Ulster Museum, including other works by Mary Martin, can be explored through their website.



Latest News from the Learning Programme

Our Heritage and Learning Officer, Alice Hellard, brings us up to speed on some of the most recent workshops with schools in Coventry and Braintree.


Student drawing in Coventry

Coventry workshops with Alexandra Blum
In January and February 2020 artist Alexandra Blum led action packed day-long workshops in Coventry with Year 10 students at Finham Park School and Year 12 & 13 students at Sidney Stringer Academy and Ernesford Grange Community Academy. Finham Park students enjoyed the rare privilege of drawing Coventry cityscapes from the 11th floor of Coventry ArtSpace, while the second workshop enabled students to use Sidney Stringer’s own roof garden to closely observe and record aspects of their panoramic views of the city. The students really impressed us with their willingness and determination to experiment with Alex’s unusual approach to perspective, and they made some fantastic drawings!


Students making woodcut prints

Gauguin woodcuts at Braintree Museum
In March 2020 we hosted a group of 30 conscientious Year 10 students from Tabor Academy at Braintree Museum, who were keen to encounter the rare woodcut prints by artist Paul Gauguin on display alongside the Courtaulds: Origins, Innovations and Family exhibition. Taking Gauguin’s Noa Noa suite as their inspiration, students considered mythology and representation, mark making and technique, before designing, cutting and printing their own colourful woodcuts. The day ended with students curating their own mini exhibitions on the theme of feminism in art with artist Nadine Mahoney.

I have never seen the group so focused. We wouldn’t have been able to run the woodcut activity in one day back at school – students wouldn’t have been able to concentrate for such a long period of time!

Covid-19 Closures and Cancellations

We are very sorry to announce that due to Covid-19 closures our exhibitions at the Harris (The Artful Line) and Braintree Museum (Courtaulds: Origins, Innovations and Family) are closed until further notice. We have also suspended all events and our volunteers and schools programmes.

We are very disappointed not to be able to share our fantastic exhibitions and projects with the public at our partner venues, but we are currently exploring ways to put even more content to you online and on social media to bring our work directly to you. This should begin next week so do keep an eye on our website and the social media of our partners.

In the meantime, you can find out more about the Courtauld Gallery’s collection by taking an online tour or listen to expert art historians on the Courtauld Institute YouTube channel (please follow the links below). We will bring you news on how to engage with our partners’ collections shortly.

Courtauld Gallery Tour 

Courtauld Institute YouTube


Wolverhampton Art Gallery

People looking closely at 3 paintings

Our partners from Wolverhampton Art Gallery joined us recently to explore our collections, ahead of our contribution to their exhibition celebrating the centenary of the Wolverhampton Society of Artists (WSA).

Despite the best efforts of the stormy weather to disrupt the day, we were very pleased to welcome eight visitors from Wolverhampton to take a look at our collections with an introduction from Barnaby Wright, followed by networking and meetings with other members of the Courtauld team in the afternoon.

In December, the Wolverhampton Society of Artists exhibition will feature a special display celebrating the influence of Samuel Courtauld on the art world in Britain in the early 20th Century, and exploring the artistic context in which the WSA came to be formed. Included in the display will be exceptional works by C.R. Nevinson, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, as well as archive material relating to Courtaulds Ltd which began operating in Wolverhampton in 1927.

During the research day we were all able to get up close to these works and engage in lively discussion about the many links between the artists, Wolverhampton and the Courtauld collections. As well as planning an exciting programme of public events and volunteering opportunities to run alongside the exhibition and throughout 2020.

The exhibition runs from 14th December to 16th February. Find out more about the exhibition and how to get involved in volunteering on the Wolverhampton Art Gallery website: